Martha Rosler In, Around and Afterthoughts (1981)
This was our ‘homework’ for theoretical discussion. Generally, I think it’s important to first have a look at an author’s context and general attitudes and beliefs so that I can take this into account. This time I thought I knew what she was about and so spent more time in reading the piece (three times), making notes, and making assumptions that were sometimes erroneous. This is partly due to my own experiences at the time she was writing and also because I found her frustrating to read mainly because she seemed to wander around the years and switch between them as if her readers already knew what she was talking about – like a conversation amongst old friends; an in-group discussion. Of course, that’s what she was doing to some extent and I’ll come to that later. It was also a “This is so” analysis of documentary photography rather than a balanced view, looking at it from all aspects. Whenever that happens I do tend towards looking for arguments against and know that I have to watch out for that – otherwise I’m doing whatever I’m complaining about!
Martha Rosler (b. 1943) is an American artist who works with multi-media.”Her work deals with the separation of the public and private sphere, exploring issues from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment”. She is also a writer. In, around, and afterthoughts, is a 1981 critical essay exploring these questions more systematically and attempting to develop criteria to define contemporary photographic activities as meaningful social practice. What Rosler appears to be saying is that, in the earliest years, ‘documentary’ photographers were using their images to show how the “underclass’ of society lived and to gain some amelioration of their conditions. This was from humanitarian attitudes but also to encourage charitable giving to prevent social unrest. In Rosler’s view such Charity “is an argument for the preservation of wealth” and “the need to give a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes” (p. 177, 2004).
In the 1930s (In the US) Roosevelt’s Administration responded to the Depression by instituting a “New Deal” – Relief (for the unemployed and poor); Recovery (of the economy) and Reform (of the financial system). One example of this was Farm Security Administration (FSA) created in 1937 that had a special photographic section Again the images were used to gain sympathy for the plight of the poor and also to encourage the population to accept the New Deal and the move towards social reform. The photographs achieved the aims of the FSA and did bring in money for general relief. However, Rosler refers in particular to the photograph of Florence Thompson taken by Dorothea Lange; how Florence Thompson became a ‘symbol’ of the Depression and yet did not directly benefit Florence and her family (p. 185, ibid). All this is what Rosler terms “liberal documentary”. “Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome” neither the victim nor the oppressor are blamed, “unless they happen to be under the influence of our own global enemy, World Communism”.
As I wrote earlier, Rosler does tend to skip around the years so I am making my own ‘logical’ order here. She moves on to state how, “ 60s radical chic has given way to eighties’ pugnacious self-interest” (p.180) so that in the 1960s, photographers took the view that they were not there to reform but to show “what is” (I think of Robert Frank and William Klein here for instance) and thence, as photography moved into the Art gallery photographers aspired to achieve a higher status and fame. Her conclusion is
Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures full substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary” (ibid, p. 196).
In our group discussion we identified these different stages and particularly talked about photo-journalism; the role of war photography and other documentary that portrays misery and powerlessness. Does that change anything? If not, what’s the point. Are we as photographers just exploiting our subjects to take photographs that people will look at for an instant and then move on?
During the discussion I told myself that we were really only talking about an extreme – war photography and similar. I began to think about documentary photography that had influenced change, even on a more individual scale. Dana Popa and her project around sex-trafficking and how this work has informed a project to assist the victims. Jodi Bieber and how her photograph of Aesha Mohammadzai the young Afghan woman mutilated by her husband’s family, led to free reconstructive surgery in New York. I hope that there are many other similar stories of the power of photographic images to influence change, but I still cannot help but feel despondent that, whatever, is done violence and war continue unabated so, is there any point?
Reading about “Radical Documentary” I began to think that this was concerned with marching alongside protesters; taking part in protests; gaining publicity for radical views. I think I was imagining Rosler as similar to the young Jane Fonda. I was also linking into my experiences of social work training in 1978/9 at the mention of documentary photographers and ‘social work’. In the first term we had a series of lectures on radical social work – Thomas Szasz and “the myth of mental illness”; Howard Becker’s Labelling Theory; how social work was an agent of an “iron fist in velvet glove’ governmental authority, just placing a sticking plaster on the fundamental ills of the capitalist society. I remember feeling horrified and saying there was no way I wanted to be involved in that kind of oppression. At the same time, I had this “Yes but ….” view. Surely that didn’t mean that one shouldn’t do anything right now to help people whilst waiting for the revolution to occur. There are so many shades of grey.
That’s the danger of making assumptions. I had to come back home after the Thames Valley Group meeting and read further to gain a more informed understanding.
Further Reading on Martha Rosler and “Thinking Photography”
Postmodern ideas encouraged new thinking around social documentary photography and Martha Rosler (along with Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier was a member of an informal study group formed in California during the mid-1970s. The three of them were soon at the core of what was being called in the mid-1980s
…the new documentary, or the new social documentary, created by sophisticated, college-educated, politically active intellectuals who wanted to use photography as an important element of social critique.
(p. 438, M.W. Marien, 2002)
The group was influenced by Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and the breaking down of the “aura” of the original work of art. They were also influenced by the thinking of Bertolt Brecht – his notion that “less than ever does a simple reproduction of reality express something about reality” and Brecht’s understanding of how to affect an audience with a story. Brecht believed in constructing obviously artificial situations and disrupting the anticipated narrative with the unexpected.
The group linked conceptual Art with political protests/activism and so helped to form a new philosophy and practice that was very different from that of earlier documentary photographers. They wanted to find a way to comment on social oppression without generating what they called ‘victim photographs’ that only evoked self-satisfying sympathy or voyeurism among viewer.
Assumptions about the causes of poverty and the power of photography to report them were challenged in relation to renowned images from the past (hence In, Around and afterthoughts) Presentations of gender and ethnicity in film and advertising were examined and also incorporated into visual analysis of the power of images. There was one comment by Mary Warner that reverberated with my own perception, mentioned above, that Rosler was writing for an in-group that already knew what she was talking about:-
The new documentarians wrote in language that required familiarity with history and philosophical distinctions, an obvious obstacle to non-intellectual audiences (M.W. Marien 2002, p. 441)
In the early to mid 1970s, Rosler had made three photomontage series called Bringing Home the War” (c. 1976-72) that combined mass-media images of the conflict in Vietnam with pictures taken from design and architectural magazines. Almost 20 years afterwards she revived this series in response to the Iraq War.
Watching this video and seeing the images on websites such as this I could see Brecht’s influence. It made me think of his War Primer and also the recent re-worked version War Primer 2 by Broomberg & Chanarin that did take my breath with its poignant images and words despite my being used to seeing countless images of war, death, violence and bloodshed. I think this is what Martha Rosler and her colleagues were aiming to achieve; to find this new way of drawing attention. The main problem as I see it is that as with any genre the viewer gets used to seeing a particular type of image so that the new quickly becomes the old and then yet newer ways have to be found.
Some further thoughts
Subsequently, John Umney sent the Thames Valley Group a link to a recent post on Duckrabbit with John Macpherson’s conclusion that maybe we should “accept that it [the war photographer’s job] may only usefully serve to mark, and honour, the passing of the fallen, and as a consequence to remind we who are left alive how lucky we are”. I agree John Macpherson’s final sentence that this is an unsettling and disquieting notion and yet it fits with the view of documentary photography that Martha Rosler pointed towards in 1981 and is still working to overcome. I feel more heartened by a link from the Duckrabbit post to a post about faked images and separating fact from fiction on the BBC blog News from Elsewhere
I’ve left to the last another issue that the Thames Valley Group touched upon which concerns what makes an ethical photographer and documentary photography. Aspects which came up for me where should documentary images appear on a gallery wall; the importance to me of explaining and engaging with people; how my practice fits with my personal conscience. Other suggestions were that documentary photography should make people ask questions and should represent some type of truth/reality. I think the last is probably the hardest given that we all have our own versions of the truth and is there such a thing as a generally accepted truth. this is something I need to work on more.
20th August 2013
Rosler, M ( ) In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) (1981) in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings 1975-2001 (2004) MIT Press, London
Marien, M.W. (2002) Photography: A Cultural History 3rd Ed, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London
http://duckrabbit.info/blog/2013/08/war-porn-blood-loss-and-living/ [accessed 19.8.2013]